What is Environmental Health Law?

The term environmental health has been around for awhile.  In the World Health Organization (WHO)‘s words, “environmental health addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting  behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments.   This definition excludes behaviour not related to environment, as well as behaviour related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.”

Paul Locke et al., in their chapter in Law in Public Health Practice (Oxford 2003), introduce readers to WHO’s broad definition of EH and then “draws a road map” for U.S. lawyers interested in using existing legal tools  to protect environmental health.  These include the “broad and heterogeneous” federal laws enforced by the EPA associated with environmental protection, including the Clean Air Act (CAA), Clean Water Act (CWA), Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), CERCLA, RCRA, FIFRA, and TSCA.  These media-specific environmental statutes contrast with the other major source of federal environmental health law – public health laws like the Public Health Services Act (PHSA); the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA); and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).  In the authors’ opinion, “Congress has created [in the PHSA] an organic statute for public health and its environmental components” that has led to the creation of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which have provided the
basis for systematic investigations of the environmental impacts on human health.  Of notable interest is the work of the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH), a CDC program and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), an NIH body.

And this is only at the level of federal environmental law.  As Locke and his colleagues observe, “[t]he federal-state relationship is complicated and delicate.”  The good news of “cooperative federalism” in environmental health law is that “many legal tools are available in the both federal and state arenas to improve environmental health.  The bad news is that the optimum use of such tools is rarely obvious.”

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